What makes a strong school library? For me, that question is twofold. Strong school libraries are staffed by strong school librarians and are used utilized by strong learners. This is why I was so excited that our middle school libraries were awarded the Ruth Toor Grant for Strong School Libraries for 2019. Our district consists of six middle schools staffed by certified school librarians.
Ruth Toor Grant
Our program is very simple and very much reproducible and very doable! In our district we believe that every student should have access to a school library that meets their needs. However, we have noticed for years that students from the elementary model of a fixed library schedule who move to the more flexible schedule of libraries sometimes fall through the cracks. If their teacher doesn’t collaborate with the school librarian or there is not time in the schedule to really visit the library, middle school students may not get the services they need and deserve during 6th, 7th, and 8th grade.
As the specialist for school libraries and as six amazing school librarians we came together to take a step to remedy this problem. The Ruth Toor Grant is funding our ability to offer teachers and students fun-filled library events throughout the year.
Our focus for the grant: Increase student and teacher engagement with the school library and invite students to experience their middle school library in a fun and engaging manner.
Our theory: Students who are expressly invited to take part in school library programming outside of class are more likely to utilize the library for their own personal use and enjoyment.
The grant allowed each building to host a preview of library services and materials for teachers during our preservice and first weeks back to school. Each librarian decided on an individual theme unique to their building. At Plum Point Middle, teachers were treated to a package of goldfish and a card in their mailboxes inviting them to “swim together as a school” and visit the library for a preview of what was new during the first week. Plum Point librarian Theresa Remington reported an increase in teachers signing up to collaborate in the library after her preview. At Southern Middle, Crystal Hill’s teachers had a “book fiesta” and spent time with the librarian over chips, queso, and salsa seeing what the library had to offer. Our Mill Creek librarian, who is blessed with a great sense of humor, handed out Sharpie markers and popcorn to his staff and thanked them for “popping” in and keeping the library “sharp” and on “point.” Teachers overwhelmingly appreciated the thoughtful gestures and ideas and signed up to bring classes down for orientation to the library throughout the events.
We plan to repeat the teacher preview in January or early February as a gentle reminder of what the library has to offer.
“It [student activities] was a really fun and great way to remind students what the library has to offer outside of coming with a class.” Anne Jones, Windy Hill Middle School
Students were invited in a variety of ways to take part in fun library activities. Some of our buildings offered after-school library fun sessions, while others opened the library during lunch for activities. At first, we were going to do all of our sessions after school, but in some buildings student transportation is an issue after school and the librarians were concerned that kids would not be able to stay after. Librarian Brandon Aris of Northern Middle School designed speed*dating activities to encourage students to explore genres and find a book with which they could connect. His book “love connection” was a huge hit with students.
Activities included makerspace activities, games, and book tastings. We provided puzzles, games, and some fun STEM activities to appeal to as many students as we could. Each grade had activities planned at the beginning of the year. We plan to repeat these activities during the winter as well. Theresa Remington at Plum Point reported to me that she has seen an uptick in students signing up to use the makerspace resources at lunch after her preview.
It’s important to us that students see the school library as not only a place to do research or check out a book, but also as a place to come and hang out, relax, and enjoy some quiet time or time with friends. We want students to see the library as a safe place where they can feel welcomed and relaxed.
Parent Engagement/Community Engagement
Every school librarian set up a table with flyers that were unique to their school library at our Back-to-School or Open House night. Librarians were able to engage with parents about library services, our databases, and literacy as they came into the buildings in the evenings. The flyers that we printed had access information for our databases, Twitter information, and the librarian contact information, in addition to other bits of great info about the library.
But Wait…That’s Not All
We are also in the process of creating bookmarks for every student in our middle schools. Each school will be handing out bookmarks so that students have a visual reminder of the services that are available and all of their databases and passwords.
The Ruth Toor Grant has allowed us to get momentum to build our middle school libraries into thriving places of learning and leisure. It has allowed us to have time with teachers that we would not have been afforded otherwise and to see students engage with the library in different ways than we traditionally offered in the past. At Mill Creek Middle, librarian Mark Taeschner reports that he was able to engage with 85% of his staff during his preview, which afforded him the opportunity to work with science teachers on a “Fake News in Science” unit that he feels would not have happened without the preview day!
Students have also had a very positive response. Anne Jones, librarian at Windy Hill Middle, reports that her lunchtime activities were such a hit that she is planning on laminating passes so that students can use the library at lunch on a regular basis–and is planning a redesign of her space to be more student friendly toward maker activities.
Here at Calvert County we are so grateful for the support that the Ruth Toor Grant for Strong School Libraries has given us. We have been able to make giant strides in making our middle school libraries thrive!
The Ruth Toor Grant for Strong School Libraries application is currently open until February 1, 2020. Why not build connections for strong school libraries in your own library?
Author: Jennifer Sturge
Jennifer Sturge is a Specialist for School Libraries and Digital Learning for Calvert County Public Schools. She has been an educator and librarian for 26 years and is always looking forward. She is a member of ALA and AASL and is President for the Maryland Association of School Librarians for 2020-2021. She is a 2017-2018 Lilead Fellow. Most recently she is the chair elect for the Supervisor’s Section of AASL. She is diligently working on her doctoral studies in leadership at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.